THE CUTTING EDGE of science is reductionism, the breaking apart of nature into its natural constituents. The very word, it is true, has a sterile and invasive ring, like scalpel or catheter. Critics of science sometimes portray reductionism as an obsessional disorder, declining toward a terminal stage one writer recently dubbed "reductive megalomania." That characterization is an actionable misdiagnosis. Practicing scientists, whose business is to make verifiable discoveries, view reductionism in an entirely different way: It is the search strategy employed to find points of entry into otherwise impenetrably complex systems. Complexity is what interests scientists in the end, not simplicity. Reductionism is the way to understand it. The love of complexity without reductionism makes art; the love of complexity with reductionism makes science… Followed more or less along these lines, reductionism is the primary and essential activity of science. But dissection and analysis are not all that scientists do. Also crucial are synthesis and integration, tempered by philosophical reflection on significance and value. Even the most narrowly focused researchers, including those devoted to the search for elemental units, still think all the time about complexity. To make any progress they must meditate on the networks of cause and effect across adjacent levels of organization—from subatomic particles to atoms, say, or organisms to species—and they must think on the hidden design and forces of the networks of causation. Quantum physics thus blends into chemical physics, which explains atomic bonding and chemical reactions, which form the foundation of molecular biology, which demystifies cell biology…the social sciences are truly science, when pursued descriptively and analytically, social theory is not yet true theory. The social sciences possess the same general traits as the natural sciences in the early, natural-history or mostly descriptive period of their historical development. From a rich data base they have ordered and classified social phenomena. They have discovered unsuspected patterns of communal behavior and successfully traced interactions of history and cultural evolution. But they have not yet crafted a web of causal explanation that successfully cuts down through the levels of organization from society to mind and brain. Failing to probe this far, they lack what can be called a true scientific theory. Consequently, even though they often speak of "theory" and, moreover, address the same species and the same level of organization, they remain disunited.
James M. Buchanan, Better than Ploughing, PSL Quarterly Review, vol. 66 n. 264 (2013), 59-76I have been consistently reductionist in that I have insisted that analysis be factored down to the level of choices faced by individual actors.The simple exchange of apples and oranges between two traders – this institutional model is the starting point for all that I have done. Contrast this with the choice between apples and oranges in the utility-maximizing calculus of Robinson Crusoe. The second model is the starting point for most of what most economists do.